Brimming with shy gawkiness, I stepped into the cantor's office. An elderly, distinguished-looking man sporting a black robe greeted me from behind his desk. This man was to prepare me for my upcoming Bat Mitzvah. As soon as I sat down, he asked me to stand and sing the classic tune, "Happy Birthday." Oy. His request triggered a surge of fear that swept through my entire body. I wanted to be a good student, though, so I mustered my reserves and did as I was told. The squeaks that came from my throat sounded more like animal noises rather than anything originating from a human. As I mercifully brought the song to a close, the cantor squinted at me and then proceeded to write on a yellow post-it: "not musically inclined." With those three words, I felt as though my fate had been sealed.
Up until that moment, I had never given much thought to whether I was musically inclined or not. My voice was just my voice. And I didn't see anything wrong with it. Sure, it faltered under pressure, but that happens to the best of us. Staring at this stranger, I wanted to put up a fight, defend my voice, prove it had been unfairly treated, but this guy was a man of God. I was just a 12-year-old kid. So I accepted his words and swallowed them whole. When the big day came, I managed to sing my Haftorah quite well, but it didn't matter at that point. The cantor's judgment had already taken hold and firmly entrenched itself in my brain. Every which way I turned, I couldn't stop thinking about my utter lack of musical inclination.
How we talk to ourselves, the mental chatter that keeps us company throughout the day matters deeply. Whether self or externally generated, our thoughts set the stage for how we feel, perceive, act, and react to whatever shows up in our lives. When a thought makes itself at home in our brains, it prompts the formation of neural pathways that prove highly resistant to change. Over time, our habits of thought can become so deeply embedded that we're not even aware of how we're feeding our minds. If our food for thought is mostly junk, we can forget that it's possible to subsist on healthy, energizing thoughts.
Over the years, I happened to develop a great love for singing, and for musical theater in particular. When I saw my first musical on Broadway, I felt transported to a heightened reality in which anything and everything seemed possible. I'd vigorously belt out show tunes in my car or shower but rarely in front of other people. The few times I ventured to sing in public, a wave of panic would overtake me; my voice, body and spirit would shrink to the size of a pea. Even karaoke made me queasy.
As an adult, I'd practically forgotten about my cantor experience until it came up in conversation with a friend. I was expressing how frustrated I felt by my seemingly irrational fear of singing when, suddenly, the cantor's words popped into my head. After I shared my Happy Birthday story with this friend, she pointed out what seems so obvious now: I handed over my power to a virtual stranger instead of trusting my own inner voice. I appropriated somebody else's judgment and made it my own. His opinion is just one person's opinion, everyone has one, and opinions offer no claim to certainty. My value doesn't go up or down like a stock depending on the whims of the market. I'm perfectly capable of changing my thoughts and honoring what brings me joy. Wow.
Thanks to my friend's feedback, I decided the best way to begin unsealing my not-musically-inclined fate would be to audition for a musical. I'd often tell people my secret desire was to be in a musical, but how secret could that desire really be? So I scheduled an appointment, picked out a song and readied myself for the big day. Standing in the hallway, awaiting my turn, I could feel the familiar panic set in, but this time, I didn't take the feeling so seriously. After all, I told myself, it's just a feeling. As soon as they called my name, my heart started pounding so loudly that I couldn't even hear myself think, which was probably a good thing. I entered the cramped audition space, exchanged a few words with the accompanist, and plunged into a song from Godspell (a somewhat ironic tribute to my cantor). No shrinking. No holding back. When I brought the song to a close, my first thought was I probably just made a complete fool of myself. But, on second thought, I allowed myself to be heard in public, I had a great time, I jostled my voice out of hibernation, and, well, I liked the sound of it all.
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